Tag: schlemiel

The Other is My Teacher: First Thoughts on Sheila Heti’s “How Should a Person Be?”

DownloadedFile

When I first started reading Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? I was struck by the title, the first words of the novel, and their speaker, the main character, who is an amalgamation of fiction and non-fiction: her name is Sheila Heti.  Her book, published in 2012, has received great reviews by The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Guardian, and many other reputable publications. I need not go through what has already been said about her wonderful novel by these reviews. Rather I’d like to introduce a nuanced way of reading her novel that taps into the existential comedy of being – which is connected to the comedy of education – that runs throughout the text. The comedy we find with Sheila, to be sure, resonates very well with the schlemiel.

What intrigued me about this confluence between the title of Heti’s novel, it’s first words, and the main character, was the fact that they are all involved, in the most Talmudic way, in a series of questions, tests, and life possibilities that are aimed at learning something and being something. But this education is not a simple one; it is what I would call a schlemiel-education. This is the case because the relationship of Sheila to her experiences is based on an uncertainty as to “how a person should be.” She is a lot like Motl of Sholem Aleichem’s Motl, the Cantor’s Son. He leaves Europe with his family to discover America. Motl embraces and attempts to learn from each experience about how to be.   But in learning, we don’t see him commit to any one way of being or another. Motl’s education, it seems, has no end.

And in many ways the other, as the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas would say, is the schlemiel’s teacher.   But Heti’s schlemiel is different insofar as Sheila is a woman-schlemiel. To be sure, the genre of women-schlemiels has, unfortunately, not been explored. But Heti’s book offers us what Edith Wychogrod would call a “sample” of the “general carnality of the (female) saint.” (As I pointed out in my blogs on Malamud and Levinas, the schlemiel is a secular saint of sorts. And Wychogrod offers us an exceptional model as to how we can read the schlemiel who, like the saint, takes the other as her teacher.)

Like children, we learn from others how to live our life and how to be. But for thinkers like Immanuel Kant this  type of education is immature. To learn from others how to live one’s life, as an adult, is shameful. A “mature” individual should, rather, use his or her reason as a guide for how he or she should live his or her life. Kant identified Enlightenment with the autonomy that comes by living one’s life in accordance with one’s reason. But there is more to the story. Enlightenment is not simply based on living one’s life in accordance with reason; rather, it requires that one sacrifice one’s desire to look to others for how one should live one’s life and for how someone should be.   Kant would, for this reason, associate autonomy with the sacrifice of heteronomy.

Nearly a century after Immanuel Kant, a Jewish man (who despised his Jewish identity) named Otto Weininger argued in his book Sex and Character (1903) – which was very influence by Kant – that Jews are effeminate because they are caught up in experience.   Jews are not capable of autonomy, in his view, because they look to experience for the answer to their question “How should a person be?” Writing on Weininger, Freud pointed out that the chapter that most “attracted his attention treated Jews and women with equal hostility and overwhelmed them with the same insults”(77, cited in Sander Gilman’s Freud, Race, and Gender) Arguing against Weininger, Freud calls him a “neurotic.” And, being a neurotic, “Weininger was completely under the sway of his infantile complexes; and from that standpoint what is common to Jews and women is their relation to the castration complex”(77).   According to Gilman, Weininger’s “infantile complex” is an “example of the problematic relationship of a Jew to his circumcision”(77).

What Freud misses about Weininger’s reading of the Jew is that both of them are deemed to be in a constant state of change and their education seems to be endless. For Weininger, neither is guided by reason so much as by experience. Heti’s book, to be sure, is Jewish in a double sense in that its narrator and main character is a woman schlemiel. For Weininger a Jewish woman is guided, to an even greater extent than the male, by experience and the other. To be sure, it wouldn’t be off to say that for Weininger she is the greater schlemiel. The male, in many ways, is really no different from her; but she does it better because she is truly feminine; he is an amalgamation of male-and-female.

Although I don’t agree with Weininger, I find it particularly interesting that I, as a Jewish male, am learning from the story of a woman-schlemiel. To be sure, Kant saw the novel as a kind of distraction and would likely associate it with the feminine.   Given this reading, I could say that as a Jewish male, I am being doubly distracted by her work from being autonomous. This book would, in Weininger and Kant’s view, only distract me from being autonomous and from guiding my life by reason.   However, in defiance of them, I would argue, as I have above, that this book provides us with a schlemiel education. It shows us the comical nature of having the other as a teacher. In involves us with an endless lesson.

Even though there is something laughable and even positive about this, there is also something very sad. The first words of the novel – in the prologue – show us a schlemiel-subject who is always-already in the midst of the question, which situates “the other as my teacher” and evokes questions about which ways of being one should, existentially, take on for oneself:

How should a person be?

For years and years I have asked it of everyone I met. I was always watching to see what they were going to do in any situation, so I could do it too. I was always listening to their answers, so if I liked them, I could make them my answers too….But when you think of them all together like that, how can you choose?  

All of these questions – and their possible answers – are at once comical and torturous. These are the questions of a woman-schlemiel named Sheila Heti who takes the other as her teacher.

(Sheila Heti is the sister of David Heti, a comedian Schlemiel Theory has written on recently.   To be sure, they have many interesting resonances as for as the schlemiel character goes.  In upcoming entries, I will dig into the details and travel with the stops, starts, pauses, false starts, and sudden turns in her novel. They all make up a “sample” of schlemiel education.)

Facing Failure: A Levinasian Reading of Bernard Malamud’s Fiction – Part IV

images-1

One of the key features of the schlemiel, one we see brought out in I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” is the fact that the schlemiel – regardless of the situation – doesn’t give up on trusting people. Even if there is reason to judge someone in a negative manner, they overlook or find an excuse to judge it favorably. Although the reader may frown upon the desire to trust the stranger, the fact of the matter is that it is one of the most noteworthy qualities of the schlemiel. And though the schlemiel comically misses the truth of the matter in this or that story, the failure of others to be honest with the schlemiel should trouble us. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool” teaches us this lesson. But it does so by drawing on a character who was born in Europe (and who Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi associates with the “virtual ghetto” created by American intellectuals and writers such as Irving Howe, Leslie Feidler, Saul Bellow, and I.B. Singer) . In contrast, and as I have been showing, Malamud’s novel, The Assistant, makes the schlemiel more realistic…and American.   He also shows us how an American schlemiel can be a secular saint, instead of what we often see the schlemiel portrayed as today: as a bro, a dude, a poor loser, or a caricature.

(Indeed, Hollywood does not and should not hold the rights over the meaning and life of the American schlemiel.)

As we have seen over the last three blog entries, Bober trusts Frank. Frank has good intentions but his actions contradict them. He continues to steal although he knows it is wrong. And, to be sure, as the story goes on we learn that he was one of the people who robbed and beat up Bober. For this reason, we can see that he becomes Bober’s “assistant” because he has a conscience. He feels guilty.   And over time, he makes more and more efforts to make things right; but this doesn’t keep him from stealing.

As a schlemiel, Bober doesn’t simply see Frank as a poor stranger in need of a job. He sees him as a person who has turned himself around (in the Hebrew and Yiddish this would be called “teshuva”).   But as I pointed out in the last blog entry, Karp – one of three Jews in Bober’s neighborhood and who also happens to have a business and a daughter he wants to marry off – tells Bober that all of the things he believed about Frank and the success of the store were wrong. Moreover, he deals the crushing blow when he tells Bober that new business owners are taking over a store than will, most likely, run out of business.

Depressed and confused about Frank, Bober goes to bed, has a tormented sleep, but wakes up with many thoughts about Frank. Instead of thinking about how much a fool he was for thinking that Frank was the reason for success, Bober ends up putting Frank in a favorable light. What Malamud has done for us, in this instance, is to provide us with a means of accessing the thoughts of an American schlemiel. But, as I mentioned above, these thoughts are not those of a caricatured schlemiel or a schlemiel who is a poor loser so much as an American schlemiel who is, as Edith Wyschogrod would say, a “sample” of a saint’s “carnal generality.” In these instances, we see Bober rethink what Karp had told him:

As for what he would do with Frank, after long pondering of the situation, thinking how the clerk had acted concerning their increase in business – as if he alone had created their better times – Morris at length decided that Frank had not as he had assumed when Karp told him the news – tried to trick him into believing that he was responsible.   The grocer supposed that the clerk, like himself, was probably ignorant of the true reason of their change of luck. (156)

The narrator tops it off by telling us that “Morris felt” that Frank didn’t know and muses that perhaps he did this “because he wanted to believe that he (Frank) was their benefactor”(156). And “maybe that was why he had been too blind to see what he had seen, too deaf too hear what he had heard. It was possible”(156). In other words, the narrator is trying to figure out, by way of thinking like a schlemiel, why Morris overlooked these things about Frank. And this musing about how this was possible tells us a lot. It tells us that a schlemiel, of Bober’s saintly type and of Gimpel’s type, wants to believe in the others goodness. Moreover, they “feel” before they think; not the other way around. Here, in this moment, we have such a situation where Bober is trying to think about Frank after hearing negative things from Karp; nonetheless, we can see that even though he may see why he is blind, he continues to stay that way be judging Frank favorably.

Nonetheless, Bober is weak and realizes that the store will have to be sold now that there is new competition in the neighborhood. Following this musing, which all happens in the morning, before opening the store, Frank comes down to see that Bober is suffering and confused: “When Frank came down he at once noticed that the grocer was not himself”(157). Frank, to be sure, has his own moral problems. But the narrator tells us that what troubles him most is what Bober’s daughter, Helen, told him; namely, that he must “discipline himself”(157).

While Bober is in the dumps, Frank “makes his mind up,” based on what Helen told him about disciplining himself, that he would “return, bit by bit until all paid up, the hundred and forty-odd bucks he had filched from Morris in the months he had worked for him”(157). Frank wants to tell Bober, for the first time (!), that he stole money from him and that he was going to pay every dime of it back. But when he sees Bober’s suffering face, he “felt it was useless”(157).

Frank, for the first time, contemplates what it would be like to confess the truth to Bober, a Jew. And this troubles him, deeply. An anti-Semitic thought crosses his mind, but this turns into other thoughts that tap into his conscience:

But when he pictured himself confessing, the Jew listening with a fat ear, he could not stand the thought of it Why should he make more trouble for himself than he could now handle, and end by defeating his purpose to fix things up and have a better life? That past was the past and the hell with it. (158)

Taking this as a point of reflection, the narrator, in the most judicious manner, suggests that Frank may have been a “victim” of anti-Semitic thief who cajoled him into doing it while, at the same time, noting that he did rob Bober and must make amends. He did the deed and must pay the price, but the narrator seems to suggest that he can get away with not saying anything while…secretly paying Bober back:

He had unwittingly taken part in a holdup, but he was, like Morris, more of a victim of Ward Minogue. If alone, he wouldn’t have done it. That didn’t excuse him that he did, but at least showed his true feelings. So what was their to confess if the whole things had been sort of an accident? Let bygones be gone. He had no control over his past – could only shine it up here and there and shut up as to the rest. From now on he would keep his mind on tomorrow…He would change and live in a worthwhile way.   (158)

What’s fascinating about this reflection is the fact that, as far as Judaism goes, teshuva (repentance) requires that if a Jew does something wrong they should admit the wrong to the person wronged and ask for forgiveness. Here we see that Frank can’t do that. It is too much for him. He can pay back what he stole, but he can’t face Bober and tell the truth.

Nonetheless, Bober still trusts Frank (or rather, as the narrator suggests, wants to trust Frank) and the door is still open. The schlemiel leaves open the door for teshuva. The question is whether Frank can fully (not partially) follow through.

To be continued……

Facing Failure: A Levinasian Reading of Bernard Malamud’s Fiction – Part III

images

One of the most important things about Frank is his timing. To be sure, Frank comes out of nowhere. But he does so after Bober is held-up, beaten with a gun, and hospitalized. He comes, like a Saint, to assist him. However, as a reader, one cannot help but wonder if Frank, who is described as a saintly and yet very dark person, was in someway involved in the heist.   But before we can even have this thought, Malamud shows us how generous Frank is.

To be sure, after Frank meets Morris Bober for the first time, he starts coming every morning and helping the grocer out. And, after helping every morning for a few weeks, he eventually asks him for a job (40).   And although Ida, Bober’s wife, is skeptical, Bober, being an “honest man” (and lest we not forget, a schlemiel), opens his arms Frank. Like Abraham in the Torah/Bible, Bober wants to help a stranger:

“Because somebody is a stranger don’t mean that ain’t honest,” answered the grocer. “The subject don’t interest. Interests me what you can learn here. Only one thing” – he pressed his hand to his chest – “a heartache.” (40)

Frank, in the most caring way, tells Bober that he will assist him until Bober gets better.   And things seem to be fine. However, as time passes Bober bears witnesses, to his chagrin, to the fact that Frank may really not be so honest. When, one night, Bober is closing down, he discovers Alpine is sleeping in the basement of his store. Bober asks him why he was down there and then springs a question on Frank regarding a theft: “Did you steal from me my milk and rolls?” Frank admits to stealing from Bober and said he did so because he was hungry. Bober asks Alpine why he didn’t ask him, and Frank gives an odd answer; namely, that he can take care of himself.

When Bober asks Frank why he didn’t stay with his sister, we learn that Frank lied: he doesn’t have a sister (51).   And this isn’t an insignificant detail. To be sure, Frank told Bober, when he first met him, that he was an orphan who went from home to home and eventually ran away to live the life of a homeless person.   Yet, somehow, he slipped a bit about staying with his sister to Bober. Now, he says, quite frankly: “I have no sister. That was a lie I told you. I am alone by myself”(51).   Confused, Bober asks him why and Frank tells him that he lied because he didn’t want Bober to think he “was a bum”(51). Bober, seeing Frank hungrily eat the food he stole, feels compassion for Frank’s poverty and seems to forget about the lie.

But in the midst of this conversation between Frank and Bober, Ida, Bober’s wife, comes downstairs to see what all the fuss is in the basement. As a result of her prompting, Bober tells Frank to find another job. While Bober gives Frank some slack, his wife doesn’t. She wants him out of her cellar and the store, but Bober, in defiance of Ida, lets him stay…even after he lied to him. And here we see the honest, saintly nature of the schlemiel.   Like Gimpel, in I.B. Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” Bober overlooks lies and deception because he, like Singer’s schlemiel, thinks that will prompt Frank to be more honest. However, as the novel goes on we see that Bober – much like Gimpel – is duped again and again.

Following this incident, Frank makes great efforts to redeem himself and this proves successful. He shaves and, so to speak, cleans up his act. Bober, excited by the change going on and, apparently, attributing the increased sales to Frank, gives Frank a raise (68). However, “Frank felt troubled about the raise because he was earning something for his labor that Ida knew nothing of, for business was a little better than she thought”(68). He is troubled because, while all of this going on, he has been stealing and giving himself money under the table (68). And, after a while, his shame disappears: “He had nothing to be ashamed of, he thought – it was practically his own dough he was taking. The grocer and his wife wouldn’t miss it because they didn’t know they had it, and they wouldn’t have it if it weren’t for his hard work”(69). The rationalization of theft is only the tip of the iceberg.

Immediately following this moment, Malamud includes a flashback to the moment when Bober was beaten up. In this flashback, we learn that Frank, along with a person named Ward Minogue, was one of the people who robbed and beat Bober. We learn that Ward, Frank’s partner in crime, is clearly anti-Semitic and that he sees nothing wrong with stealing from a Jew and beating a Jew up. He sums up his attitude with the expression, “a Jew is a Jew.” Frank, pacing nervously around the block, remembers this moment and Ward’s voice when he went in that day to rob Bober:

He remembered thinking as they went into the store, a Jew is a Jew, what difference does it make? Now he thought, I held him up because he was a Jew. What the hell are they to me so that I can give them credit for it. (70)

At the point in the narrative, everything changes. As readers, our sympathy for “the assistant” diminishes. Yet, now we can understand why he showed up at Frank’s store. He wants to make amends. The fact that Frank may admire saints may show some hope, but now we can see that anti-Semitism may have prompted him to do the deed and commit the crime. Regardless of his intention to make amends, now we see that his going back to Bober to work for him still didn’t keep him from stealing. These new insights make Alpine’s character more complicated. And show us that, of the two, Bober, the schlemiel, may be the real saint.

Adding to this, Malamud has us bear witness to Frank’s thoughts as he walks through the city streets and remembers what he did. He is tortured about what he did and what he was at the time doing. But he gets away from these thoughts by going on a search for Ward (71).   When he meets him, he asks for his gun so he can hold-up “the Jew” Karp. But Ward refuses to give him back the gun. What, one wonders, is behind this request? Does Frank really want to hold up Karp, “the Jew”? What does he want to do with the gun?

Following this encounter, as readers, we are not sure if Frank is a different man. To be sure, he stays on. When he sees Ward a second time, he asks him to hold up Karp (143). Ward says that he can’t understand why Frank would want more money. Ward tells Frank that he was “sure you’d have saved up a pile by now, stealing from the Jew(143).   Frank doesn’t own up to the fact that he had been stealing. However, now he tells Ward that he doesn’t want to do any crime. He just wants his gun. In response, Ward threatens Frank by saying that if he won’t rob Karp, he wants a bribe. If Frank doesn’t give him money, he threatens that he will tell Bober and his wife that Frank has a crush on their daughter, Helen.

To add to the tension, Malamud notes that Ida tells Helen to stay away from Frank. In contrast, Bober looks the other way when he sees Frank kissing his daughter (148). In the face of this, he just shrugs his shoulders and adds, “So what is a kiss? A kiss is nothing”(149). He trusts Frank, but in doing so he doesn’t think about what is at stake if Frank wins her heart. On top of that, Karp wants his son to go out with Helen but Bober isn’t interested in having his daughter marry a man who is destined to success. He wants, first and foremost, an honest man. And for that reason, his wife thinks he is a schlemiel. Because Frank, to her mind, is far from honest. And, more importantly for her, he’s not Jewish, can’t make a real living, and will likely leave her and never come back to the area.

Meanwhile, we learn that Ida is not the only one who suspects Frank. Karp does too. Malamud points out how Karp knew that Frank was stealing from Bober and tried to convince Bober that something was amiss with Frank. But Bober, being the trusting schlemiel, will hear none of it:

Without doubt Morris kept Frank on to make his life easier, and probably, being Bober, he had no idea what was happening behind his back. Well, Julius Karp would warn him of his daughter’s danger. Tactfully he would explain him what was what. (151)

To be sure, it is Karp that brings everything down and exposes all of the things that Bober chooses not to see or knows nothing about.   Karp starts, in a Talmudic fashion, by asking Bober how his business improved: “How is this possible? You are maybe advertising in the paper?”(153). Bober’s responses to Karp show him sinking deeper and deeper into despair. Bober realizes that his success was based on the fact that he was willing to overlook things. Karp shows him that he, like a schlemiel, misunderstood what was going on:

Morris smiled at the sad joke. Where there was no wit money couldn’t but it. “By word of mouth,” he remarked, “is the best advertising.” “This is according to what the mouth says.” “It says,” Morris answered without shame, “that I got a fine clerk who has pepped me up the business. Instead going down in the winter, every day goes up.” “Your clerk did this? Karp said, thoughtfully scratching under one buttock.” “The customers like him. A goy brings goyim.” “New customers?” “New, old.” “Something else helps you also?”(153)

Bober then goes right to it and say what he really believes about Frank: the “most important help to me is Frank.” “Astonished,” Karp tells Bober that he has been duped. The reason whey he was doing so well was because Schmitz, the German grocery store owner in the neighborhood, was sick and had cut his hours in half (154). Bober was getting his business.   And then Karp delivers the final blow; namely, that Schmitz’s business was already auctioned off to hard working Norwegians. They would end up wiping him out financially. His business would go down hill very soon. After hearing this, Bober is demolished:

Morris, with clouded eyes, died slowly. Karp, to his horror, realized he had shot at the clerk and wounded the grocer….The grocer wasn’t listening. He was thinking of Frank with a violent sense of outrage, of having been deceived. (155)

But, in the face of this calamity, we see that Frank has change of heart.   The more time Frank spends with Bober, seeing Bober suffer, the more moral he becomes. To be sure, Bober becomes, for Frank, a kind of saint or what Edith Wyschogrod would call a saintly “sample.” But this saint is more like a schlemiel-saint than a Christian-saint.

…to be continued

 

Facing Failure: A Levinasian Reading of Bernard Malamud’s Fiction – Part II

DownloadedFile-3

Writing on Bernard Malamud, Sanford Pinsker argues that with his work we have something fundamentally different from what we find in I.B. Singer. As Pinsker notes, I.B. Singer “had to face the agonizing problem of re-creating a ghetto experience that had been too short lived”(77, The Schlemiel as Metaphor: Studies in Yiddish and American Jewish Fiction).   Singer has this responsibility because he was a Yiddish writer who came to America. For this reason, Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi argues that Singer created a “virtual shtetl” in America. His most popular schlemiel, Gimpel, is a remnant from the world that had died in Europe after the Holocaust.   The real translation of Gimpel into English is not “Gimpel the Fool” so much as “Gimpel the Simpleton.” He is, without a doubt, conveying a Jewish “sample” of the ethical to post-Holocaust American writers.

 

However, Bernard Malamud has a different American context than Singer. According to Pinsker, “Malamud and a host of other postwar American Jewish writers had to discover the boundaries of a heritage that, for them, had hardly lived at all”(77). What emerges out of Malamud’s struggle is a different kind of Jew. Citing Theodore Solotaroff, Pinsker writes that “Jews in his fiction emerged as a ‘type of metaphor…both for the tragic dimension of anyone’s life and for a code of personal morality’”(77).

 

Pinsker builds on this to argue that the morality of Malamud’s fictional Jews can be found in the fact that Malamud’s Jews are “so filled with suffering that one imagines they have just changed clothes after a four thousand year trek across the desert”(78).   And in Malamud’s hands, this morality had a specific target. According to Pinsker, the schlemiel helped Malamud to deal with post-Holocaust anxieties that hadn’t been addressed immediately after WWII: “For American Jewish writers, the figure of the schlemiel became a way of dealing with the more troubling aspects of this condition, a way of talking about moral transcendence rather than economic advancement”(79).

Morris Bober, whose name sounds a lot like the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, is the main character of Malamud’s second novel, The Assistant.  He provides us with an exceptional “sample” of how this “moral transcendence” is communicated through a schlemiel.   To begin with, the main character’s body is an excellent index of what Wyschogrod calls “general carnality.” When we first meet Bober, a man in his sixties who has a failing convenience store and deli, he is dragging “heavy boxes to the door, panting”(31).   We see him in his daily routine which is bleak and weary. His first encounter with another character is, to be sure, an act of charity. When a little girl comes in asking for food for her mother, who has a running bill she can’t pay, he tells the girl “no more trust.” She burst into tears, and Morris – feeling great compassion – gives her food, takes note of the bill and his growing debt, and moves on. This doesn’t bother him. He’s used to losing money and, as the novel shows, puts morality over money. And this, in many ways, makes him a poor schlemiel.

When, a few pages later, the narrator provides a more detailed description of Bober we can see that he is an existential schlemiel of sorts. He seems to be stuck in a store that doesn’t become successful. He is one of three Jews living in a predominantly non-Jewish area in New York City. His other two neighbors have succeeded in making successful businesses, but he has not. Everything seems to be failing around him. The narrator’s description gives us a vantage point to understand his bodily state and “carnal generality.” He is constantly facing failure:

The grocer…had never altered his fortune, unless by degrees of poverty meant altercation, for luck and he were, if not natural enemies, not good friends. He labored long hours, was the soul of honesty, it was bedrock; to cheat would cause an explosion in him, yet he trusted cheaters – coveted nobody’s nothing and always got poorer. The harder he worked – his toil was a form of time devouring time – the less he seemed to have. He was Morris Bober and could be nobody more fortunate. With that name you had no sure sense of property, as if it were in your blood and history not to possess, or if by some miracle to own something, to do so on the verge of loss. (17)

Morris Bober, like Gimpel the Tam (simpleton), trusts everyone. He is the “soul of honesty.” And this marks the foolishness of the secular (schlemiel) saint. He lives in poverty and his happy with his lot and his name (his, so to speak, essence or “generality” is marked by being a “little man” or simpleton).

In the story that follows, we see that Bober is faced with failure to such an extent that he wonders whether or not it is worth it to keep his store. Karp, his neighbor, ends up selling a storefront to a person who would compete with Bober and, to his mind, would likely run him into deeper poverty and force him to close. Bober’s wife urges him to sell the store, but, like a schlemiel, he argues that he “came to late” and lost his opportunity to sell it when it would have been smart. Now, he would get nothing.

In the midst of this crisis, Karp sees him one morning and tips him off that that there is a strange car in the area and that they may hold-up his store. He suggests that Bober close his store down: “Telephone the police,” cried Karp. “The car is parked across the street.” “What car?” “The holdupniks.”   After Karp leaves and Bober motions to call the police, “the store door opened and he hurried inside”(25). Bober is accosted by two crooks who take his money, call him a “Jew liar” for not telling him where the “money is” (and he really doesn’t have any more; he’s near broke), and then proceed to beat him up.

When the blow descends on Morris, he sees all of his frustration and failure pass before him. He “felt sick of himself, of soured expectations, endless frustration, the years gone up in smoke, he could not begin to count how many. He had hoped for much in American and got little…He fell without a cry….It was his luck, others had better”(27). These last lines are telling because, even though he sees his whole life as a series of failures, he still ends off thinking, like a simpleton, that this was his “luck.” In other words, he accepts suffering, failure, and loss with a shoulder shrug.

Following this event, it seems as if Bober’s life and store are over. He can’t carry on. At this moment, an Italian man named “Frank Alpine” (I will refer to him, as does the novel, as “Frank”) shows up. When we first meet him, we learn that he has been hanging around in the area looking for a job. The narrator calls him “the stranger”(30).   He is unkempt, has a beard, and comes from the West. He seems like a fly-by-night kind of person.  His face, seemingly like his character, is “unbalanced.”

He was young, dark-bearded, wore an old brown stained hat, cracked leather patent shoes and a long black overcoat that looked as if it had been lived in. He was tall and not bad looking, except for his nose that had been broken and badly set, unbalancing his face. (29)

And, following this description, the narrator notes that “he looked bleary, unhappy, his beard hard”(30) when he shows up for the first time in the neighborhood.

Nonetheless, he has something mysterious and even saint-like about him.

Sam, who had a candy store in the neighborhood, speaks with Frank. Before speaking with him, however, he sees that Frank is looking off at a picture of a monk. The narrator describes the picture:

The picture was of a thin-faced, dark-bearded monk in a course brown garment, standing barefooted on a sunny country road. His skinny, hairy arms were raised to a flock of birds that dipped over his head. In the background was a grove of leafy trees; and in the far distance a church in sunlight. (30)

Sam, seeing Frank’s interest in the image, asks him if it is “some kind of priest.” In response, Alpine notes that it is a saint: “No, it’s St. Frances of Assisi. You can tell from the brown robe he’s wearing and all those birds in the air”(30).   Following this, Frank further explains that what made him special was the fact that “gave everything away”:

He gave everything away that he owned, every cent, all the clothes off his back. He enjoyed to be poor. He said poverty was a queen and he loved her like she was a beautiful woman. (31)

To be sure, Franks words about the saint indicate that we has been moved by his hagiography. He has, as Wyshchogrod would say, a “sample” of “ethical transcendence.”

When Frank first meets with Bober, he carries his milk bottles in for him. And Frank “willingly accepted when Morris, who knew a poor man when he saw one, invited him in for coffee”(34). Bober, in many ways, is like St. Francis of Assisi. But Bober is Jewish. Frank and Morris engage in conversation and we see this difference come to the surface when Frank explains how he is Italian. Regardless, Bober puts that to the side as he talks to him in a fatherly manner (36). Frank conveys his story to Bober and the story. Like Bober’s story, it is sad. His father leaves him at young age and Frank is raised in an orphanage.   In response to this story, “the grocer was moved.” And both of them bond on the fact that have both experienced poverty and failure throughout their lives.   They both understand the same things that are the substance of what Wyschogrod would call saintly.   However, as we shall see, the schlemiel, Bober, is the bigger saint. He suffers more than Frank and Frank takes advantage of him. Nonetheless, this changes as the novel progresses.

 

Facing Failure: A Levinasian Reading of Bernard Malamud’s Fiction – Part I

images-2

The schlemiel is often thought of as the Jewish fool who, in the traditional joke, is paired up with a nudnik and a schlimazel. The schlemiel, as the traditional joke goes, is asked to get a bowl of soup by the schlimazel. When the schlemiel gets right near the table, and it seems as if all will go well, he spills the soup of the schlimazel’s lap. The schlimazel, who receives the bad luck, screams out. And the nudnick asks what kind of soup it is. In this scenario, the schlemiel is portrayed as a perpetual bungler who disseminates bad luck wherever he goes. (In fact, all three figures congregate around bad luck.) As the explanation goes: Jews, accustomed to bad luck throughout their history, took to this character so as to laugh at their misfortune. But, to be sure, there is obviously more to the story. The schlemiel is not the ordinary fool and shouldn’t simply be thought of as a bungler. The schlemiel is, to be sure, related to the Jewish saint. His failure has deeper roots.

In The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse points out how the schlemiel, in Yiddish literature, Ruth Wisse argues that “the genesis of the literary schlemiel within the context of Yiddish literature is the tale of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav entitled “A Story about a Clever Man and a Simple Man.” The story, published in 1807, anticipates Yiddish literature which will take the schlemiel as its main character. In Hebrew and Yiddish, the word “simpleton” is “Tam,” this term was often used by Hasidim to describe a righteous man. The irony, however, is that for the Hasidim, the simple man is the righteous man. He need not be a “wise man” or “clever man.” Rather, he can be a schlemiel, too. And, as Wisse notes with regard to this story by Rabbi Nachman, what makes it special is that “the instinctive response of devotion” is privileged over “the highest achievement of the mind”(17).   In the story, the simpleton’s devotion is seen as comical by the “clever man,” but in the end the simpleton’s devotion pays off.   The most important thing for Wisse is to map the movement from the simple schlemiel to the secular one in Yiddish literature. She is interested in how faith and righteousness is translated into the secular. Writing on this, Wisse argues that “in the later secular works, faith is not a matter of religious credence, but the habit of trusting optimistically in the triumph of good over evil, right over wrong. It is also the dedication to living “as if” good will triumph over evil”(22).   In Yiddish literature:

The figure of the schlemiel was employed to present the case of hope over   despair, because the author retained his awareness of reality even if his character did not. The schlemiels are committed to Messianic truth, and if need be they can reinterpret, distort, or obviate immediate reality when it contradicts their ultimate ideal. Society finds them wanting, but according to the internal judgment of the story, their foolishness is redeemed. Rarely does this literary schlemiel rise to the heights achieved by the Bratzlaver’s simple man, because rarely does the modern author share the great Rabbi’s full-hearted conviction. More usually, the schlemiel remains the practical loser, winning only an ironic victory of interpretation. (23)

Wisse was referring to the Yiddish tradition of schlemiel literature. And her explanation of the schlemiel is framed in terms of the translation of Rabbi Nachman’s simpleton into Yiddish literature vis-à-vis the concept of faith and acting “as if” the good will triumph.

What I would like to suggest is that we approach the schlemiel’s relationship to religion and literature differently. Instead of looking into Yiddish literature, I would like to take up the schlemiel in post-Holocaust Jewish-American literature (namely, by way of Bernard Malamud, one of it’s greatest representatives); and instead of looking at the schlemiel by way of Wisse’s framework for faith and its translation into the secular, I would like to use a different model based on Edith Wyschogrod’s reading of Levinas in terms of addressing the Saint and hagiography. The latter, as I hope to show, is a model which helps us to understand how faith is not an idea but something that is transmitted, as Wyschogrod would say, by way of “samples of ethical behavior”(277). Unlike Wyschogrod, however, I am not taking actual saints as my example so much as schlemiels who, to be sure, are really saints in disguise. The main character of Bernard Malamud’s novel, The Assistant, a Jewish store owner in the post-War era named Morris Bober is a case in point. Since, today, our hagiography is fiction and our saints are the “little men” and everyday people.

 

Edith Wyschogrod’s Reading of Levinas, Saints, and Hagiography

Before we begin our reading of Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant, I’d like to briefly go over Edith Wyschogrod’s reading of Emmanuel Levinas, Saints, and Hagiography.

To begin with, Wyschogrod, in an essay entitled “Exemplary Individuals: Toward a Phenomenological Ethics,” argues that her starting point for a reading of hagiography and saints must start off with what she calls “carnal generality.” She draws on this notion from the work of Merleau-Ponty and Levinas (264).   For Ponty, “generality is inscribed in the incarnate subject, an ensemble of self-transcending acts and lingual capacities. By contrast, Levinas focuses on the alterity of other persons and its impact on the self, an alterity that cannot be brought into conceptual focus by language.” Although these definitions differ, “both agree that the psycho-physiological primordium that is the incarnate subject expresses a generality of which universals and essences are derivative types”(264).

Wyschogrod argues that these generalities are “context-specific” (she calls these contexts “carnal generality”).   In the spirit of phenomenology, Wyschogrod argues that Ponty, in his “analysis of social existence,” looks, through “successive exfoliations” of the context, to get at the “essence” of the phenomena. However, Wyschogrod notes that Ponty stays away from the word “universal” and suggests that we use the word “carnal generalities” to avoid the connotations suggested by words like “essence.”   To be sure, Wyschogrod tells us that he uses the term “carnal generalties” in reference to “dialogue” and language. Drawing on this, she argues that “this generality is constituted by the power of the self to inhabit the body of the other”(265). In other words, language is the medium that brings a “carnal generality” between self and other together: “together the other and I form an ensemble of significations, a single flesh that is traversed and expresses meaning”(265).

Wyschogrod notes the difference, however, between Ponty and Levinas on this issue of language. While, for Ponty, there is a coming together of the self and other in moments of communication, for Levinas, “the breach between the self and other is unsurpassable”(266).   This difference, argues Wyschogrod, is what “”opens discourse” and makes “ethical relation possible”(266).   Regardless, for Levinas and Ponty, the “carnal generalities” remain. The question, however, is what they communicate and what we can learn from them.   For Wyschogrod, “carnal generality” conveys what she calls “exemplification” and this is best seen in hagiography.

To introduce this new idea, Wyschogrod, instead of writing about saints and their hagiography, talks about a case of “idiot savant twins” convey by the neuropsychologist Oliver Sacks. In his account of the case, Sacks recalls how the two would engage in “a singular and purely numerical conversation,” a “mathematical game in which they exceeded the competence of the most sophisticated mathematicians”(269). After watching them, Sacks concluded that “the twins did not form abstract notions of numbers but experienced them in some sensuous and immediate way”(269). As Wyschogrod explains, Sacks discovered that they learned and communicated not by way of mathematical ideas but…spatially.

Saints, argues Wyschogrod, are not much different: “they are idiot savants of the ethical, although, in contrast to the twins, they often possess considerable psychological acuity, as well as remarkable powers of political and social organization”(269). Wyschogrod argues that the entire life of the saint is devoted to the “alleviation of sorrow (psychological suffering) and pain (physical suffering) that afflict other persons without distinction of rank or group…or that afflict sentient beings, whatever the cost in pain or sorrow to him or herself”(270).

With this definition in mind, Wyschogrod argues that not all saints are mystics in the sense that they do not all experience a from of unity with the Godhead but many, the most ethical, remain painfully incarnated (270).   Her project is to preserve, for “modern and postmodern critics,: a “concept of saintliness” by “uncovering singularities,” which she associates with the “landscapes of the saintly imagination”(270).   To illustrate how this relates to hagiography, Wyschogrod cites a few passages from St. Teresa of Avila and St. Catherine of Siena. But the last two examples she cites come from the Baal Shen Tov and Buddhism.   What she notes, in this hagiography, is how the “trace of transcendence” can be seen in them. To be sure, she notes that the bodily presence in them is an ethical figure.

In the second to last section of her essay, Wyschogrod writes of what she calls “exemplification”(277). This is the view that, “in taking the saint to be an exemplary figure, we mean that the saints’ acts are samples of ethical behavior and that the saint’s life as a whole an sample of compassion, generosity, and love”(277). Take note that Wyschogrod takes heed of Jacques Derrida’s critique of the example, which is based on the structure of the signifier and the signified (the idea – signified – has an example – a signifier) and, ultimately finds its birth in Plato’s concept of “forms” – eidos). For this reason, she uses the word “samples” (not examples) to describe what the saints provide readers:

The utility of samples lies in their enabling us to learn the character of the whole of which they are samples. Thus, in the case I am considering, one would watch the saint’s behavior in order to learn what goodness, compassion, and love are like. (277)  

Unlike Wyschogrod, who took saints as her samples, I would like to take the schlemiels of modern fiction as our samples. There is a “trace of transcendence” in them. Perhaps the reason Wyschogrod overlooked them is because she didn’t associate the comical with the ethical. And this, I believe, needs to be addressed. To be sure, as I have noted, the schlemiel, as Wisse sees it, is ultimately a religious figure. It can provide us with a sample that is closer to us since the world we inhabit is much more ironic than the world that the saints occupied. To be sure, I think that the saint’s hagiography survives by way of schlemiel fiction. And it speaks to us in an intimate manner after the Holocaust.

 

Charles Bernstein: Writing “On Theatricality” and Doing Poetic Stand-Up

DownloadedFile-2

I was recently looking through Charles Bernstein’s essay collection Content’s Dream: Essays 1975-1984. Side by side in the collection, I found two pieces that really caught my interest: one is an essay entitled “On Theatricality” and the other is a poetry piece entitled “G-/”. The difference between the two pieces really struck me because they reminded me that, at a certain time, writers on theatricality associated it with language and play. However, for some strange reason, they didn’t associate it with comedy. I think of Derrida’s work, for instance, on Artaud. His essays on Artaud are more concerned with emptying language of content via performing texts.  For Derrida, it seems, it’s all about metaphoricity and textuality.   Nothing in them gives an indication of comedy.

The “difference” that I’m referring to, above, is that Bernstein’s poetry piece “G-/”, which is next to “On Theatricality,” is comical.  It differs.   To be sure, when I read it, against the essay on language and theatricality, I felt it would be wrong to read it in terms of Bernstein’s theoretical reflections. Rather, it called for a comic sensibility.

Let me explain.

In the essay “On Theatricality,” Bernstein writes of the actor Joseph Chaiken’s performance of Samuel Beckett’s Texts for Nothing and How It Is (200).   According to Bernstein, Chaiken has provided him with “one of the most satisfying performances of Beckett I have ever heard”(200). Bernstein explains why in a language that is clearly garnered from the a theoretical reading of theatricality and textuality:

Chaiken’s reading situates the address of the text not to a listener but to itself, as reverie, the self – or more properly the writing – talking to itself, proceeding, stopping, questioning, circling back: a textual practice organized by internal compositional necessities and not by the sound of a speaking voice.   By performing the text as a musician might play a score, rather than enacting a persona, Chaiken was able to realize the textual dimension of Becket’s work (200).

To accomplish this in poetry, Bernstein suggests that poets make a “sharp break” form “shamanistic incantation of neoritualistic sound poetry” and from “the presentation of personality as a projected coherent force”(200). All of this prevents language from being merely, as Heidegger would say of art, a form of equipment or a tool of expression. Rather, it lets language resonate as language.

While I know this reading very well, I find that it is missing the comical spirit of language that we find, oftentimes, in Bernstein’s poetry (especially his later work). The poem following this, to be sure, draws directly on the comedic.

Here are a few lines that will give a sense of how Bernstein does a kind of stand-up performance of poetry. It has the quality of what I call schlemiel-poetics. (And one should note that Chaiken did work with Yiddish theater and the schlemiel.). Notice how, in the midst of his meditation on possible failure (or his sense of failure, which is a key trait of the Jewish fool) he laughs:

I had this liberating thought the other night      imagine that nothing that I write or thought was good       it was all crummy   and the fact of crumminess would somehow free me up from this burden That I feel to express       to say something   meaningful     because I couldnt   and I an I started to laugh       it seemed a joyous kind of concept   and then this thinking lead me I mean sometimes I feel depressed I feel a little bit that way in the morning

These lines from the poem remind me of Woody Allen or Marc Maron’s self-deprecation. To be sure, stand-up poetics, playing the schlemiel on the stage or in a poem, is a way of doing more than theory says it does. The running joke and the act of self-deprecation in language do more to loosen up language and make it playful than any abstraction. Playing with failure is a way of playing with pathos.

I’ll end with this clip of RD Laing and Joseph Chaiken doing some very comical mirroring exercises. What you find in them is a play on bodily gesture by way of the face, something that actors portraying schlemiel have done since Yiddish theater got its start in Eastern Europe. Bernstein, it seems, is influenced by this kind of theater which is all about “facing” the audience as a stand-up comedian would. This isn’t simply language play…its comedy.   Comedians, after all, make faces.  They make the body comically signify.

 

Psychotic Man-Child Fathers – Schlemiel Children: Marc Maron’s “Attempting Normal” (Part I)

DownloadedFile

When I watch comedy, I’m always curious as to what kind of life this or that comedian lived while growing up. Like many theorists of comedy, I do think there is some plausibility to the claim that comedy, in some way, is born out of and addresses some kind of trauma or loss.   Ruth Wisse, in her book The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, claims that schlemiel humor is a response to failure and weakness. After all, Jews were often excluded from history and often related to the countries they lived in from a position of weakness. Given this situation, Wisse argues that the schlemiel and it’s brand of Jewish comedy are a “theoretical reversal” of history and creates what she calls an “ironic victory.” However, the victory is ironic because the memory of trauma, loss, and failure persist. Jews are acutely aware of this. But, at the very least, comedy mitigates the power they have over Jewish life and gives the comedian some kind of freedom. The victory is, at best, minimal.   But, at the very least, such humor provides, as Irving Howe might say, a margin of hope. The comedian, to be sure, gives the audience not something to laugh at so much as a way to address suffering and loss that is not a negation of it so much as a way of facing it with some kind of intelligence which, in turn, bears on our freedom.

When I first started reading Marc Maron’s book Attempting Normal, I was astonished to learn that he grew up in a house with a psychotic father.   Like the comedian Marc Maron, I also grew up in a household with a brilliant psychotic father. And like him, I also felt like, because of my life growing up, I was also “attempting normal.” Reading this book for the first time, I was so excited to learn how he, through humor, addressed the suffering he went through by virtue of being the child of a psychotic. Like Maron, I became very interested in humor. And when I started reading his book, I knew he would approach it in ways that would make perfect sense to me. Through humor he found a way into a way of life he had, since youth, never known.   And although he would never “be” normal, at the very least he could “attempt” it. This very thought is one I know intimately. To be sure, I feel that I “attempt” it in nearly everything I do. And there is something comical and something very sad about that fact.

To be sure, as a result of my experience, I have spent most of my life trying to put the pieces together. Along the way, it occurred to me that, as a result of my odd and brilliant father, and the psychotic experiences I had been a part of, I had, like Maron, become a schlemiel. In one of my first blog entries I called myself a schlemiel and a son of a schlemiel. It stuck me that this is appropriate because, from what little experience I have of psychotic individuals (I was raised by one) I can say that they are, by and large, schlemiels. They dream big and often reinterpret reality to fit into the their psychotic narrative (in which they are the winners and they control the show). However, unlike the schlemiel, the psychotic is far from a nebbish. He or she goes out of her way to make reality conform to his or her vision. The psychotic is not simply living in an imaginary world; they actually change reality.   And this often gets them in trouble. To be sure, my father was arrested several times and was thrown into many mental institutions because of his psychotic actions (and by psychotic I don’t mean violent but…unusual).   In the film Shlemiel (2011), by Chad Derrick, I recount some of these experiences. And, as a filmmaker, Derrick was interested in why I turned to this comic character and how I, like Maron, attempted normal.

Maron’s retelling of his father’s psychosis has a comic element that touches me and inspires me to write my own account. For this reason, I’d like to briefly discuss some of Maron’s stories and bring together what makes them not only a lesson for me but for anyone who wants to understand who humor relates to madness and suffering. Being the children of psychotic parents, and not being psychotic ourselves, we can laugh at the stories and gain some kind of understanding of our parents and ourselves.

Maron begins his account of his father’s psychosis and its relationship to his life by noting the saddest pat of his father’s madness; namely, the times his father had a psychotic episode:

The most peculiar, sad, and entertaining part of living with a manic-depressive is the timing of erratic emotional behavior, whether it is up or down. My father has had some really impressive mood events. (39)

The first event Maron recounts – vis-à-vis his father’s timing – is his graduation from university. He notes how his father – just like mine – was the Valedictorian of his high school class. He also notes how his father was deemed “the center” and the “wunderkind” of the family.   He was, as Maron says, “mythic in the family. The doctor, the genius, the golden one.” I find this description so close to my own, because my father was also regarded in this way. And, to be sure, he regarded himself as a legend as well. (He was a Valedictorian, also, at Columbia University, went on to receive the prestigious NASA fellowship, and went on to a promising career.)

However, Maron, strangely like myself, had to live with his father’s high estimation of himself, his mind, and is capabilities. Like Maron’s father, my father was also highly selfish and erratic. And like Maron’s father, mine could also be abusive. But what I like most about Maron’s account is how he addresses it; he wonders if his father was consciously manipulating things. I wondered the same about my father:

I had lived with my father’s erratic, selfish, sometimes abusive behavior all my life it was always about him. A midlife diagnosis of bipolarity seemed to be his way of taking an easy way out, at least to my mind.   Initially I didn’t buy the diagnosis. Even now, sometimes I don’t know. It’s very hard to determine the validity of a mood disorder when someone is as plain old narcissistic as my dad. I thought he was just a man-child who refused self-awareness and defied wisdom even as his life fell apart around him. When necessary he would blame the “illness.” (39)

His father, in his eyes, was a man-child, a schlemiel. And he sees him as simply refusing self-awareness. This is a fascinating claim because I also thought of myself as more rational than my father and saw him opting out as things went down the tubes.   But although the son of the schlemiel may be the rational one, in the end, he is still deeply affected by the erratic nature of his father’s actions. Nonetheless, by recounting it, in this way, Maron gives the background for the comical events his father would spur on him – namely, in moments that would require the greatest seriousness.

In these moments, the inappropriate things his father does are comical; but seen against the background of his life and upbringing, we see the humor as bordering on sadness.

…to be continued….

 

 

My Vicarious Role in a Journalist’s Missed Encounter With Seth Rogen…in Las Vegas

images-1

About a month ago, I was contacted by Louie Lazar, a journalist who told me that he was given an assignment by Tablet: to determine whether or not Seth Rogen was the future of Jewish comedy. Pondering this question, Lazar came across several article/blog posts I had written on Seth Rogen for this blog. After going through them, he contacted me by way of email and told me he wanted to talk on the phone. Since he was hoping to interview Rogen, who was at a three-day-special-event hosted by the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) that had Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and a few other stars in attendance, he told me he would call me from Las Vegas. I was excited to talk to him. I thought to myself, in dream-like fashion, here was an opportune moment.

Anticipating of the phone-call, I spent a few hours thinking about Rogen, what I had written on him, and what I could now say about him. I even posted a query on facebook to gather what people were thinking about Rogen.

When the journalist called, we ended up talking for over an hour about Rogen. One of the things I discussed with him was how Rogen was a “new schlemiel.” He was, as Daniel Itzkovitz might say about Adam Sandler or Ben Stiller, an example of the schlemiel as “everyman.” This, of course, goes against the grain of the older model of the schlemiel who, as Hannah Arendt and Ruth Wisse argued, looks to challenge the “philosophical and political status quo.” His failure, so to speak, is an “ironic victory.” Rogen, I argued, is the status quo. Meaning: he is not an elitist; rather, he is “one of us.” The journalist agreed and noted that he was a “bro.” He has the body and demeanor of a bro – he likes to smoke pot and party – and that makes him “one of us.” To be sure, the motif of being a “bro” is central to his latest film Neighbors.

Before the conversation ended, Lazar asked me what questions I would ask Rogen if I were to interview him. In a rush of excitement, I gave the journalist several questions. (And even after the conversation ended, I sent him several more.)   After hanging up, I imagined – in schlemiel-like fashion – what answers Rogen would give. In a sense, I felt as if the journalist was a messenger; though him it was “as if” I was meeting Seth Rogen himself (who, just today, was dubbed by TIME magazine to be the “Stoner King of Comedy”). (An interesting side note, the word schlemiel seems to have a bit of Hebrew in it: Shelach (send) m’ (from) el (God) – in other words, he is a holy messenger of sorts or else…exiled from God and redemption; sent away.)

So…one can imagine how I felt when, just today, the journalist emailed me and told me that he published his feature piece on Rogen just yesterday.   I read his essay with great interest hoping to see how the interview worked out. I was so excited. I felt as if my schlemiel-like-dreams were going to come true. However, what I found was the most disappointing thing imaginable; namely, that the journalist wasn’t able to meet Rogen and converse with him. I felt as if, in the end, Lazar and I were the real schlemiels.   He hoped to have an encounter, we both dreamed about it, but in the end…it just didn’t happen.

To be sure, the difference between Rogen and Lazar is that while Lazar sought to find, meet, and interview Rogen, Rogen, as I told him on the phone, doesn’t really act in many films; he just “shows up.” To be sure, Lazar, uses this expression in the title of his piece: “Seth Rogen Exemplifies the Jewish Journey from Chosen People to Just Showing Up.”

Reading the piece, I felt an intimate sense of being duped because I was a part of Lazar’s search. What makes this failure so enjoyable, however, is the fact that it was written in the style of Gozo journalism that I love and have loved since high school. This was appropriate since the journalist, comically modeling himself on Hunter S. Thomson’s journey in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, was asked to interview Rogen in….Las Vegas. The subtitle of the piece, “Beer and Loafing in Las Vegas, on the heels of the everyman start of the new stoner man-child comedy” says it all.   He is on the heels of a schlemiel and in following him, he also becomes a schlemiel of sorts. Together with the title, I couldn’t help but think that Lazar was suggesting something that was in the midst of our conversation; namely, that Rogen is a “new schlemiel,” an everyman stoner who just “shows up” in this or that film or talk-show appearance. As I noted, half of Rogen’s comedy is just showing up.

And this is the sense that Lazar communicates in his piece. However, there is a big problem. Even though Rogen “shows up,” the problem, for the journalist, is that he can’t speak to him. I can hear Lazar asking himself, as the article moves on, “But…if he was really like one of us, why can’t I speak to him?”

But there is more to the story. Reading the piece, I couldn’t help but think that Lazar was astounded at how odd the whole scene, along with Rogen’s popularity, was. And this, to my mind, is exceptional: it prompts us to wonder, with him, what all this means. What is the meaning of a comic character’s everydayness when it is presented within a hyper-capitalist milieu of a conference dedicated to stars in Las Vegas?

At the outset, we can hear the juxtaposition in his sarcastic tone:

I’m drinking scotch in the VIP section of the Garden of the Gods, waiting for the God of the Gods, Seth Rogen, Any minute now, he should be walking past the 50-foot-high Corinthian columns flanked by statues of Julius Caesar mounted on war horses and into the private area between the Neptune Pool and Temple Pool, in which I’m standing, comfortably besides a heat lamp.

He, the everyman, is framed as a “God of the Gods.” And this is odd.

Lazar presents himself as a schlemiel in the process. He is, like Rogen, wearing a Grey suit and has stubble. (Grey being the color of mediocrity; the color that is the color of everydayness, showing up, etc.) And like a schlemiel, he “cuts himself shaving.” This motif comes back at the end of the piece when he thinks he will, finally, meet with Rogen.   But his worry is for naught.

One of the things that follows this introduction of sorts is a great sketch of how Rogen came across the everyman. To be sure, Lazar nails it when he points out that:

In 2009, in what they’ve described as their best work, Rogen and Goldberg wrote a Simpson’s episode about an overweight nerd (played by Homer) who becomes a superhero by channeling the powers of other comic book heroes. His name: “Everyman.”

In addition to this, Lazar points out that Rogen recently called himself a schlemiel, that is, a “self-medicated man-child” (he did so in his recent appearance before a U.S. Senate hearing on Alzheimer’s disease, which, to be sure, came right before his Las Vegas appearance!).

Following this, Lazar turns to himself, reflectively, and notes how he believed, against all the odds (Vegas style), that he would get to interview Rogen. But, as I noted above, this is thwarted several times. At one point, he notes how he drank too much and ended up missing Rogen; he was “too late.” While other journalists shout things out, he can’t say anything; he is tongue-tied. On another occasion, he ended up “locking eyes” with Rogen, but “before I could act” Rogen “snapped out of whatever mental state he was in…and walked off.” In other words, Rogen wasn’t really looking at him and, like a schlemiel, Lazar missed yet another possible encounter. He leaves in frustration; but, with the hope of a schlemiel, he is determined to try yet again.

And in a moment when he comes very close, he says that “I felt a surge of hope; here was my shot at redemption.” He blends in with a group of people and waits. But no one comes. It seems like yet another failure.

In one of his last attempts, he meets up with a “hippie” named “John.” The name and his description reminded me of an everyman like the dude. Near the end of the article, he notes how John, out of nowhere, tells him that “I just talked to him inside.” Wondering what he said and desperate for an encounter, Lazar screams out: “What!” When he asks John what they spoke about John, in a casual manner, says, “I dunno, we talked for a few minutes…He’s a great guy. Real normal-like.” Lazar, not satisfied with this simple reply, asks again “What did you talk about?” (After all, Lazar and I discussed so many questions that we were dying to get answers for, but, to no avail.)

The last lines of piece are written to me:

In my research, I’d spoken with a philosopher, Menachem Feuer, who’s written extensively about Rogen and who teaches a Jewish Studies course at York University in Toronto.* His students, a geographically and ethnically diverse mix, “know Rogen and identify with him.” What is that I asked. “It might have to do with him being an ordinary guy, the guy that just shows up,” he said. “He’s just like us.”

What I love about these last lines is that they hit on the central irony of his piece. If Rogen is so much like us, if he’s such an everyman, why can’t I speak with him? To be sure, the juxtapositions that Lazar runs through in his piece show us that he is and is not like us. He is made into a God of sorts, and, as I noted above, TIME calls him the “Stoner King of Comedy.” Lazar found out the hard way.

And so did I. Like Lazar, I imagined that there would be an interview and that all of my questions would be answered. And, in many ways, I felt as if, through Lazar, I would be meeting a god of sorts. I felt as if I too would be redeemed.   This is, without a doubt, the conceit of a schlemiel.   And, like any schlemiel, we end up failing and with dreams that were…just dreams.

The irony is that Rogen also casts himself as a schlemiel. He’s “just like us.” He just shows up. But, in the end, the schlemiel, the traditional one at least, doesn’t just show up. Like Mendel Mocher Sforim’s Benjamin the IIIrd, he goes on a journey. He does things. And for this, I thank Louie Lazar. I feel as if he has shown me, in a kind of private joke, that he is an old schlemiel while Rogen, the everyman, is a new one.

In many ways, I prefer the old schlemiel to the new one. But now that Rogen’s film has become yet another blockbuster and now that he is the new “stoner king of comedy,” I may have to accept the fact that the new schlemiel is now the God of comedic gods.   And what we are left with today – it seems – is “beer and loafing.”

——————

*I teach several courses at York University, actually.

 

Body Talk: On Seth Rogen’s Comical-Erotic Descriptions of Zac Efron’s Body

images

When Seth Rogen recently went on Conan to promote his latest film, Neighbors, Conan’s first comment went right to the relationship of Seth Rogen to Zac Efron’s body: “Your costar Zac Efron, in this film, I…I didn’t know this but apparently…he’s in ridiculous shape.”

In response, Rogen says, shaking his head up and down, as if obsessed with Efron’s body: “Yes..It’s Insane. It’s freakish! The first time I saw him without his shirt on I thought there was something wrong with him…honestly…because he has so many bump sticking out of his body.”

Rogen then compares the “bumps” all over Efron’s body to his own body, which, “like is just one big bump.”   To be sure, Rogen is telling us that his body, in relation to Efron’s body, is the punch line.  

In the next joke about Efron’s body (in relation to his own), Rogen recalls a description he makes in the movie: “It’s like his whole body is an arrow…that points to his dick.” Rogen goes on to talk about how Efron is “without shirt in many scenes.”

(As I pointed out in my last blog entry, this is a key figure for Rogen in the movie. When, at the end of the film, Rogen (Mac) takes off his shirt and joins Efron (Teddy), they become “bros” again after, for much of the movie, being turned against each other. Their topless bodies, radically different from each other, in public are the basis for their renewed friendship. In the end, even though Rogen is a husband and father, he is now a bro.)

Playing on the topless-Efron-figure, Rogen discusses how the Efron would work out between one shot and another. This, for Rogen, is “psychotic.” Rogen points out if he were to work out between sets he would be knocked out for the day.

Rogen tops if all off by saying that every time he looks at Efron’s body he just wants to touch it (as he gestures outward toward the audience). But he adds that he sees his body in a psychotic manner, “as if it were a mirage.” But, in a moment of liberation, he passes from illusion to reality (“coming out of the closet,” so to speak) when he declares, in defiance of public standards, that Efron “is the sexiest mother fucker alive!” Since this is a comic-erotic revelation, which the crowd laughs loudly at, Rogen pulls back and laughs to himself.   In comic shame, Rogen comes back and says, with a shrug, “I’m sorry…he brings it out in me.”   This sets him up for the final joke of the evening on Conan.

Rogen goes for it when he claims that Efron’s body doesn’t just “bring it (the craziest-most-erotic-things) out” of himself; it brings “it” out in everyone. Rogen calls “it” a “sound” that comes out of women’s bodies (without their volition) when they see Efron. Then he moves on to describe how men’s bodies, when they see Efron on screen, also makes this “sound.” The punch line is that this sound, because it is automatic, must come from one’s penis. In other words, the sound people make when they see Efron is a kind of “mouth orgasm.”

What Rogen does here is speak what I call “body talk.” By making his body the foil of Efron’s body he engages in body talk.

While people – Rogen included – metaphorically ejaculate when they see Efron, they do chuckle when they see Rogen. The conceit is that, even though at the end of the film Rogen and Efron become bros-with-their-tops-off, this clip shows us that it is Efron that is the real basis of Rogen’s passion. Even though Rogen is caricaturing his sexual reactions to Efron’s body, the point of the routine is to leave the audience member with a sense that this may really not be a joke. There is, so to speak, a comic suspense of disbelief.

Rogen, it seems, gets very excited when he describes Efron’s body. Efron’s body is “insane,” “psychotic,” and a “mirage” that Rogen wants to touch. Efron is the “sexiest motherfucker in the world.” All of these expletives give the effect of a person who is erotically-and-yet-comically aroused by Efron. And in his comical passion, Rogen insists that men and women in the audience who see Efron on screen (or live) are just as obsessed as he is.   Although we don’t make this “noise” over Efron’s body, Rogen’s insistence that we do is the insistence of a sexual schlemiel. It works like a charm because Rogen’s body – and not Efron’s body – is the punch line. That bodily and erotic difference makes Rogen’s….“body talk.”

But in a different setting, namely an interview with Movie Maniacs, the interviewer asks Rogen and Efron about their “bro moments” in the film and if, in real life, they have these moments.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SPK6kWi6eqE]

In response to whether they have anything as “intimate” as the film suggests, Rogen speaks first and says “I don’t think we’ve had anything that intimate.” Efron says they “haven’t hooked up lately.”  And Rogen adds “not since the movie.”  But, in truth, they have no such interest.

Efron compliments Rogen and says (2:24) that he “really defines comedy for our generation in an honest and cool way…and in a way I’d like to do it someday and I’m learning now…Seth is a mentor.”  In these moments, we see that Rogen, in real life, is Efron’s mentor.  And to say that he “really defines comedy for our generation in a cool and honest way” is to give Rogen the greatest honors.

This, it seems, is what is behind all the body talk.  In reality, all of this comical body talk and standing shirtless with Efron is about “defining comedy for the next generation in an honest way.”

But, ultimately, the irony of all this is that really Seth Rogen’s body is “defining comedy for the next generation in an honest way.”  It’s the “other” body (which is closer to “our” bodies), not Efron’s body, which is the punch line that can possibly be said to “define comedy etc.”

I want to underscore the word “possibly” because this is quite a claim to make.  It’s validity would have to be proven on the basis of Rogen’s body talk and its popularity.  Can it really define “comedy for the next generation in an honest way”?